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I thought he was checking me out… Misinterpreting non-verbal communication across cultures

I will never forget one of the dilemmas I ran into when I went on my first trip to the Philippines. My husband introduced me to one of his best friends, but had to leave the room to welcome his other buddies. We were left alone, sitting in awkward silence. Me, being Western thought it would be polite to ask some questions and get to know his best friend.

However, I noticed he would never answer my questions. He would simply raise his eyebrows quickly up and down every time I would ask a question. It was not that I just felt he was being rude, but that from a Western perspective he was checking me out – you know, guys, when they check out a girl and use their eyebrows to show they like her. I felt uncomfortable because I did not understand how his friend could do this to my husband. They were friends, right!?

It was only some six months later and after meeting other Filipinos that I realized that this was a common way of communicating “yes” or “I agree”! It had nothing to do with checking someone out like in the West! Haha! Even though I was married to a Filipino, but due to not living in the country at the time, I was not aware of this very common way of non-verbal communication. What fun!

Non-verbal communication

So when we talk about non-verbal communication, it is about the communication in which we do not talk, but express the message using various elements and visual clues. These clues can include body language, distance (personal space), and physical appearance as well as gestures, posture, facial expressions, eye contact, vocal characteristics, and touch.

These are the main characteristics most people would come up with when asked about non-verbal communication. However, if we look at non-verbal communication cross-culturally, we see that a long list of additional aspects needs to be included that are in need of attention when living or working with different cultures. These characteristics can further include punctuality, giving and receiving gifts, showing emotions or working extra hours, just to name a few. Usually, these are referred to as a part of a country’s cultural etiquette, but they communicate a lot in the way of non-verbal communication, too.

Just in the same way that verbal communication can be in no way standardized for all countries, nor can non-verbal communication be neglected or considered as not important or crucial for a business deal or any given relationship.

Oftentimes, it is how someone behaves which will make you like or dislike that person, rather than what he or she says: “It’s not what you say but how you say it!” or “Actions speak louder than words”. Your body language reveals more information than the actual content of your message. Therefore, it is important to pay close attention to the way you communicate non-verbally when dealing with people from other cultures.


Let us take a look at eye-contact. In some cultures looking someone in the eye is assumed to indicate honesty and straightforwardness, whereas in other cultures it can be taken as challenging and rude.

For example, in the USA people find it easier to connect with someone if they look them directly in the eye. Also in Arab culture, a great deal of eye contact is used, and using too little may be regarded as being disrespectful. In English culture, using eye contact is also important but if you use it too much, people may start to feel uncomfortable. Whereas in many Asian countries, you will find the opposite where eye contact is considered rude and somewhat aggressive.